A Young Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima is one of the most famous Japanese writers from the 20th century. Although he authored numerous acclaimed works and was even nominated for the Nobel Prize, he is probably better known for his ritual suicide at age 45 (and was also the subject of Marguerite Yourcenar’s MISHIMA: A VISION OF THE VOID). He burst out on to the Japanese literary scene with his semi-autobiographical CONFESSIONS OF A MASK, detailing a gay man coming of age in war time Japan and hiding his feelings behind a mask, and from there wrote a number of novels (34 in total), plays, short stories, poems, and nonfiction, many of which are still read 50 years later. Often times his first drafts required little revision. Though he was a little messed in the head, he was clearly a genius.

But, although he clearly had some talent, Mishima worked very hard to get to where he was. In fact, he may be the hardest working writer I’ve ever read about. As a teenager, he focused a great deal on poetry and was capable of churning out enough material to fill a chapbook in a week. But his interests soon shifted and he began writing prose. He read the dictionary to pepper his pieces with obscure and beautiful kanji at a time when I would have failed SAT vocab tests. It’s not clear just how many short stories he wrote at this point in his life, but the number must have been rather high and he also worked on a few novellas and novels. He also produced around 9 full-length plays during these years.

At 17, some teachers at his school were so impressed with his short story “The Forest in Full Bloom” that they published it in their magazine and offered to publish it in book form, a feat all the more amazing because it happened during World War 2 when paper shortages were common. The story, written in an elegant classical Japanese, tells the story of a boy reminiscing about his ancestors. There were a couple other stories to round out the collection.

Soon after Mishima began publishing other prose in various magazines, making a decent amount of money from his writings. Another short story collection soon followed, as did his first novel, BANDITS, about aristocratic lovers with suicidal preoccupations.

Keep in mind, while he was producing all this work, he also held a full time job at the finance ministry and would only write at night, staying up late and averaging four or so hours of sleep each night. When his father began to see the toll this lifestyle was taking on Mishima, he allowed his son to quit to focus on writing—right around the same time Mishima was offered a book deal for his next novel.

Mishima spent the next three months working on his novel, finishing in early 1949. This was CONFESSIONS OF A MASK. Published that summer, it received warm reception. But did not sell well. Mishima got nervous about his decision to resign from his finance post. He could still make a bit of money from his other writings, but would it be enough?

CONFESSIONS, which is now viewed as the work that cemented Mishima as a notable writer, was far from a sensation when first released. It was only in December, when it appeared on a number of critics’ “best of” lists, that the public started to take note. And take note they did. Mishima would enjoy fame for the rest of his life.

So, he was far from a genius figure who could effortlessly produce amazing manuscripts. He spent so much time writing as a teenager that it is quite likely he had written over a million words before BANDITS (often listed as the amount of practice needed to produce something great). And even then, it still took a while for him to find popular success.

To any wannabe writers feeling down because they’ll never be good enough, remember all the writing Mishima had to do before the public took note. Sure, he was 23 when that happened, but by that time he had also written more than most people do over a lifetime. And to anyone who thinks NaNoWriMo is a waste of time because people just shovel words on to a page, remember that Mishima practically did that every single day of his life.

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Movie Review: Boogie Nights

This movie has it all: sex, drugs, glamor, murder, Mark Wahlberg, and an amazing script and cinematography. Directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the most acclaimed contemporary auteurs, this, his second feature film, marked him as a “big bright shining star,” to quote Wahlberg’s character.

Though the focus is on a young porn star named Dirk Diggler, played by Wahlberg, there is a large supporting cast, each with their own compelling side plots. The film follows them through the exciting 70’s until the mid 80’s, when changes in the porn industry and various excesses start catching up to them. It can get dark, particularly in the second half, but comic undertones scattered throughout prevent the story from getting too heavy, and here lies one of the movies greatest strengths: the movie flips from laugh out loud to nail bitingly tense (like the famous drug dealing scene) and makes sure none of these switches are out of place.

Despite PTA being only 27 when this was released, he clearly knew what he was doing. From the 2 minute long opening shot to the well-constructed script, already at a relatively young age PTA knew what he wanted and how to get it across on screen. The idea had been gestating in his mind for a while; it is actually an expansion of a short mockumentary film he made with friends when he was 17, called THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY. Though BOOGIE NIGHTS sheds the documentary feel and introduces a lot of new characters, the main plots in both are comparable.

If there is a flaw here, it is that some details get cut out due to the long length. At just over two and a half hours, there is not much room to stay and linger on certain side characters, and yet that is what’s needed—PTA even admitted that if there was one thing he could change, he would grant Diggler’s abusive mother more screen time. Other characters would have benefitted just a little more time in the spotlight, such as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, who has a falling out with Diggler on screen and an apparent reconciliation off screen.

For those not turned off by the pornographic premise, this is not one to be missed, and for anyone interested in film, I’d say watch it even if the subject matter disinterests you. It is a great offering by one of the best currently working directors, with some fans (me…) even ranking it above his more famous THERE WILL BE BLOOD. It is a great addition not just to PTA’s oeuvre but also to world cinema.

A Young Haruki Murakami

As a wannabe writer, I find nothing as motivating as learning about famous writers when they were just starting out. What were they like before they were well known, before they knew they had made it?

With millions of books sold across the world and numerous international literary prizes, Haruki Murakami is one of those rare writers who achieve popularity both with critics and with audiences. His characters’ apathy and the bizarre adventures have found resonance all across the globe.

He definitely has an easily identifiable style. The story of how he came to write his first extended prose piece at age 30 sounds like something straight out of his books: while watching a baseball game and drinking, a player hit a double and at that exact moment, Murakami realized he could write a novel. He went back home and began it. At that time he and his wife ran a jazz bar together, so his writing had to wait until late at night. But everyday for four months he kept on it. The result was the novella HEAR THE WIND SING, which he submitted to the Gunzo literary contest and won first prize, kick starting his career (a bit of trivia: the same contest also helped establish Ryu Murakami, who won for ALMOST TRANSPARENT BLUE).

He followed up with a slew of acclaimed novels, each one earning him more readers and awards, until he became Japan’s most famous writer.

It makes for a great story—who wouldn’t want to hit it out of the park with their first novel? But this leaves out quite a bit of backstory and makes Murakami into some lucky guy born with incredible talent, instead of a disciplined hardworker.

Anyone who has picked up a Murakami novel knows he is well versed in western (particularly American) literature. Since his teenage years, he had a voracious appetite for the works of Updike, Capote, Fitzgerald, and Raymond Carver, among many others. By the time he started his first novella, he probably knew more about contemporary American literature than many young American writers.

And, as he states in his introduction to Soseki’s SANSHIRO, in his 20s he made his way through THE TALE OF GENJI and the complete works of Natsume Soseki and Junichiro Tanizaki. (I cannot find anything on Murakami reading Kenzaburo Oe, but given how often the older novelists works are reference in Murakami’s, he probably read a lot of Oe.)

Hardcore Murakami fans might be aware of all this, but arguably the most important part of his origin story is rarely if ever mentioned. At Waseda University, he studied drama with a focus on screenwriting. In fact, running his Japanese wiki page through Google translate, it seems being a screenwriter was his first ambition, producing numerous scripts and scenarios, none of which have ever been produced. I’ve seen posts online about how these scripts, still stuck in his drawer, number in the twenties, but at this time I cannot confirm that number. Either way, he did a lot of screenwriting before trying his hand at prose.

Murakami thus goes from being a natural prodigy who struck gold with his first piece to an ambitious, well read, prolific writer who began creating work years before any of it saw the light of day. So any would-be writers feeling down today, just remember even the best often spend lots of time slaving away in anonymity, and if their biography suggests that they didn’t, it is much more likely that that section is just missing. And for those still discouraged, perhaps try switching formats. After all, a rejected screenwriter found success as a novelist: who’s to say it couldn’t happen again.

Book Review: Catherine Certitude by Patrick Modiano

Not the definitive Modiano novel, but my library had it so I thought why not. This is Modiano, chronicler of the dark Occupation, reporter of the Holocaust, and speaker for those who no longer can, doing a children’s book. And it has nice, whimsical pictures, like something out of Roald Dahl. (Plus the short length doesn’t hurt!)

The story, if you can call it that, is about a grown ballet teacher reminiscing about her childhood in Paris, after her mother had immigrated to the US and it was just her and her father. Her father and his snobbish partner run a shady company that Catherine doesn’t know much about. All she knows is that various loose ends with it are the reason they can’t join her mother. So her days mostly consist of her going to school, going to her dance class, and doing homework in her father’s warehouse.

And, heads up, the rest of this review will have spoilers, as most of my problems with this book are there.

For fans of Modiano, this is a decent outing, with some memorable characters and scenes. However, in typical fashion, he answers very few if any of the questions he asks. This is less a narrative than a series of memories, few of which build on each other, and as a result, it’s missing something, some impetus to drive things along. There is hardly any conflict in the book. Sure, her and her dad want to go to America and Catherine would like to see her mother again, but so little of the mother is seen it takes a backseat to the relationship between Catherine and her father. And between them there is no conflict. At a party where her father is trying to make business contacts that he thinks will finally get them to America and fails, Catherine feels bad for him, but other than that, it’s smooth sailing between them.

Catherine herself does very little. She has her dance classes, and at one point she makes a friend who invites her and her father to the party mentioned above, but that whole arc just reads like it’s there to remind readers they want to leave France. The friend soon moves away, the people the father meets do not help them, and it is never mentioned again after. One day the father is suddenly free to leave and they then leave.

That’s it. Nothing is answered, which Modiano can pull off in his adult books, but here for a book meant for kids…well, I can’t see any kid being happy with this book. Even girls into ballet might find the dancing bits fun, but would definitely think the rest of the story an enigma. The lack of narrative-drive hurts it. Although the main conflict should be about them getting to America, it reads more like a meditation about her father’s mysterious job, but Catherine herself doesn’t actually dedicate too much time pondering over what it might be he does—it’s tough to imagine a child getting invested in this.

I’ll give this book two ratings. I’m not super well-versed in children’s lit, but I did spend a summer at a children’s fiction publishing firm, so this first rating is for kids. I really can’t see too many kids liking it for the story itself, although, again, those pictures are awesome. One star for kids.

As a fan of Modiano, I’ll be a bit more generous. It has all the hallmarks of his writing, and while they end up being much less satisfactory here than in his other books, it’s still decent fare. If you’re a fan of Modiano’s writing, it is worth a look. You can blaze through it in 45 minutes, so you’ll be done long before you decide you don’t like it. Three stars for fans.

Book Review: Danube by Claudio Magris

Though marketed in some editions as a novel, this is anything but. Taking a trip down the Danube River from its source down to its end as a springboard, this unorthodox travelogue (in which Magris himself barely figures) examines landmarks, historical events, and philosophical and literary ideas based around the waterway. Topics vary from Celine and Hegel to beer and Bulgarian bandits, from well-knowns to people obscure even to those with PHDs.

It’s impossible to discuss all the themes and ideas presented in here, as it’s basically a cultural biography of the region, but if pressed to identify one, identity plays a huge part. Identity is one of those big themes in literature, and many a writer has set out to record on it in all kinds of manners. But this is a wholly original book. Historical stories on ancient peoples migrating and assimilating throughout the ages populate it, and as far as writers go, it seemed like Elias Canetti and IB Singer came up the most regardless of the specific areas Magris finds himself in, two once great giants of literature who lived all over Europe and America. This is one of those rare books where subject and theme align perfectly, like they were made for each other.

It’s slow going at times. There is no real plot or conflict to motivate the reader to read on. And yet, each day, I would pick up this book and read a few pages (it’s so dense, expect to take your time with this). The prose is beautiful, poetic, but this is definitely not for everyone, especially those who just want escapism from their reads.

Encyclopedic in scope, I’d like to recommend this book but I can’t actually think of anyone in real life I know who would like it. DANUBE is not the kind of book you can pick up and quickly power through; it needs to be read slowly, let your attention meander like the river, look up some other books as you make your way through this one. If you are the kind of reader look past the lack of a traditional story into the history or philosophy or literature, the type of reader who likes to be challenged, this is for you.

A Young William Golding

As a wannabe writer, I find nothing as motivating as learning about famous writers when they were just starting out. What were they like before they were well known, before they knew they had made it?

Today, the focus is on William Golding, best known for LORD OF THE FLIES. The information comes from John Carey’s excellent biography, THE MAN WHO WROTE LORD OF THE FLIES. Though now viewed as something like a one trick pony, Golding wrote a number of other novels (many of them have fallen in stature since release, but in his lifetime later works such as DARKNESS VISIBLE and TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH received wide acclaim), a couple nonfiction pieces, some plays, and exactly one collection of poems.

That collection, aptly but boringly entitled POEMS, came remarkably early in his career, with the book published when he was 23 and most of the content written during his college years. His next published work, LORD OF THE FLIES, would not be released until 20 years later.

What happened in the interim?

Golding was still writing, mentioning in a letter from the late 1930’s a novel he was at work on, though it is unknown if he ever finished the draft. Short stories and poems also flowed from his pen, but few if any were picked up.

Golding began to work on larger projects after the war. The first, SEAHORSE, was a nonfiction account of sailing while also training for D-Day. While his other nonfiction works are mostly collections of essays, lectures, or travelogues, this is a straight biographical account.

His next two would be novels, though still drawing on his life experience. CIRCLE UNDER THE SEA features sailing as a prominent theme in the story of a man trying to discover treasure on an island. And, although he wrote in the evenings, Golding needed a day job, settling on being a teacher. His next novel, SHORT MEASURE, is a drama set in an English boarding school, and was considered by publishing houses before ultimately getting rejected. None of them have been published, even posthumously.

For anyone doubting themselves, just remember, Golding wrote at minimum three and a half extended prose pieces, along with a good amount of poetry and miscellaneous works before his first novel hit the market. He was 43 years old. Whatever one thinks of Golding, whether he is a one trick pony or a stain on the Nobel (I disagree with both thoughts), it is impossible to deny that he let rejection halt his dreams.

Book Review: The Poet by Yi Mun-yol

A young boy’s grandfather is posted as a governor in a northern province in 18th century Korea. A rebellion breaks out and in order to save his life, the grandfather betrays the state and joins their cause. The uprising is soon routed, the grandfather executed, and the family he leaves behind is condemned to death. After years of hiding, the sentence is commuted, but their land remains confiscated and the mark of shame follows them everywhere.

From this guilt-ridden background, the young boy’s poetic developments begin, and, despite winning a rural poetry competition at age 19, this Künstlerroman is far from over.

This boy is a real figure in Korean literature, a famous poet named Kim Sakkat. Unfortunately, little of his work has made the translation jump into English (I can find only one collection of his poems available on Amazon). Still, readers need not know the poet’s life story to enjoy this.

The artist’s journey has been done before, but the focus of this one prevents it from getting stale. Lots of moments in the poet’s life are mentioned in passing: fleeting moments with his family, his marriage—even his death barely gets a mention. The important thing here is his poetic maturation and how his grandfather’s crime affects him. The emphasis isn’t coincidental: soon after the Korean war, Yi Mun-yol’s father defected to the North and his family experienced similar treatment at the hands of others. Not too much biographical information on the writer is available in English, but it seems he dropped out of college and for the most part educated himself, also like Kim Sakkat.

In terms of action, it is a bit light. Much of the conflict resides in either the family struggling to hide their scandalous past or in Kim’s development as a writer. That said, anyone who likes to read books about books or poems or appreciates stories of self-discovery like Hermann Hesse will find more than enough here to keep reading. The short length also helps keep the story from dragging.

The language is at times distant and academic, but there are points where the prose soars to heights just as poetic as Kim’s work. Sprinkled throughout are poems that I believe Kim Sakkat actually wrote. Reading them translated was a whole different experience than what they’re like in Korean, but they are still enjoyable and reminiscent of some Chinese poets, like Du Fu.

Though I’m posting this now, I actually read THE POET last year. And what a book. Though not for everyone, it was definitely one of the best I read in 2015 and convinced me to dive into Korean literature. I highly recommend it.

Book Review: Radish by Mo Yan

Mo Yan, controversial Nobel Prize winner, started writing soon after enlisting in the Chinese army in 1976 and published A TRANSPARENT RADISH, here simply titled RADISH, in 1984. It is one of his first published works, and it does feature some flaws typical of early books, but fans will see the writer who would soon publish RED SORGHUM stepping up to bat here (a classic he published just two years later).

Already Mo Yan’s unbridled prose energy is present here (though slightly more reigned in than in later works) and the usual themes of food and hunger waft through the text. The plot centers around a scrawny, sickly mute boy, Hei-Hai, trying (and usually failing) to perform the tasks assigned to him by a work brigade. The other main characters are the blacksmith he works under, a mason, and the maiden Juzi, who meet each other through Hei-Hai and become embroiled in a love triangle.

The novella is mostly character driven, and for that it suffers. In a book of this length it’s difficult to fully describe characters, leaving the main characters more archetypes with one or two distinguishing details than fully formed, and some side characters are one dimensional and don’t appear nearly enough. Those new to Mo Yan, beware that he does not have a kind view of humankind. His fiction is a cruel world where miserable things happen to almost everyone and even the characters the reader is supposed to root for have awful qualities. If you need a sympathetic character (or an uplifting ending), Mo Yan might not be for you.

Still, the plot never flags. I was never on the edge of my seat but I also ever wanted to put it down. I have heard that after the Nobel Prize, some high school students in China are now required to read this, and after reading, despite the flaws, it is not hard to see why. English readers, however, might get less out of this than a Chinese reader, due to cultural differences. The descriptions of the work brigade would obviously resonate more with those familiar with Chinese culture.

Interestingly, little of the magical realism that Mo Yan is famous for is present here. Other than a brief appearance by a “transparent radish,” there is nothing, and those not expecting it might be thrown off by the sudden appearance of a see-through vegetable. By the end of the text, though, the metaphor of the radish makes sense. I highlight this not because it is a negative, but rather because it hints at an early Mo Yan more grounded in reality than his later metafictional, mystical works. Considering a lot of his novels revolve around those elements, what would a realistic Mo Yan be like?

Overall, RADISH very obviously an early work, but its pros outweigh its cons by a good margin. It is probably not the best place to start exploring Mo Yan or his country’s literature, but with its cheap e-book price, anyone already acquainted with those will find something interesting here.